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Piedmont performance of 'Steel Magnolias' brings intimacy

Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” began as a short story for his young nephew. The short story evolved into a screenplay and ultimately morphed into the hit movie of the same name. “Steel Magnolias” launching and revitalizing the careers of six outstanding film actresses—Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah and Dolly Parton. The movie version is expanded with many scenes including fine male actors such as Tom Skerritt and Sam Shepard. The screenplay action takes place solely in a small Louisiana town Beauty Shop with a cast of six women. The Ensemble Theatre of Piedmont has put on “Steel Magnolias” also in a small town beauty shop, now in Piedmont Oklahoma.

Movies can do a great deal that live plays cannot. Intimacy is the area where live performance outstrips film and brings an audience to tears and joy, laughter and human dignity. The part of M’Lynn Eatenton, a perfect example of Southern gentility in a stylish and loving matron was played by J. Christine Lanning. Lanning did not try to live up to the ‘impossible’ screen version of Sally Field, and as a result her performance equaled the standard adding intimacy as well. Elizabeth Garrison is Truvy Jones, beauty operator and town gossip with a heart of gold. Truvy can keep a secret if needed and never gossips maliciously, so nearly everyone confides in her, ideal for any stylist. Garrison also developed her own character rather than mirroring Dolly Parton’s and her effort paid off beautifully. Garrison, having just moved to Oklahoma, will soon become another staple and favored example of Oklahoma talent.

Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie is the daughter of M’Lynn and “Steel Magnolia” chronicles the events of her life from the beginning of the play with her wedding and proceeds to the ultimate conclusion. Everything revolves around Shelby and Tonia Sina has her own interpretation of the headstrong Southern maiden with a golden future and tragic fate. Interestingly, the primary similarity between Sina’s performance and Shelby’s life is that both character and actress required a kidney transplant; the ultimate gift of motherhood. Shelby only receives M’Lynn’s extra kidney whereas Sina needed a second from her brother, Matthew. Sina was able to use the experience to great advantage in her role and her empathy really connected with the audience, an advantage Julia Roberts would not likely wish for, but a clear asset nonetheless.

Truvy has just hired a lovely assistant as the play begins, Annelle Dupuy-Desoto. Annelle is reliable, but certainly flaky, as she finds her identity. The movie cast Daryl Hannah, lovely as well as flaky, but this production uses Lia Oldham, lovely, flaky and warm. Perhaps this is enhanced by the intimacy of the location, but the eye contact demonstrated clearly her quirkiness, often hidden by shyness. The sense of humor in this Annelle makes the line delivered by Lana Henson as Clairee Belcher: ‘Spoken like a true smart-ass’ the definition of the inner Annelle and one that the sincere Christian embraces in Oldham’s interpretation.

There are two middle-aged women in this show who are as oddball as they can be. In the film, Clairee Belcher is portrayed magnificently by Olympia Dukakis and Ouiser is one of Shirley MacLaine’s best. This production uses Lana Henson in the role of Clairee and Anna Holloway (who is also a reviewer for The Oklahoman) as Ouiser. There is only one way any actress, Hollywood or not can portray an eccentric Southern Belle of uncertain age. That is to dig down and pull out everything one would like to say and do when young and then go ahead and do it. That is the Southern way, and of course, and while Dukakis and MacLaine were brilliant in their movie performances, Henson and Holloway use their own rock solid experience to give these two such impossible creatures a personal reality that was distinctly unique and incredibly funny. The performance of Henson was delightful, and Holloway delivered an exceptional combination of cruel and cool. The approach is the epitome of genuine kindliness that creates a character of value beyond redemption One notable difference between the movie persona’s and the characterizations of Henson and Holloway is the wisdom behind the humor is evident and this adds an extra layer of laughter to this production.

Ben Oldham is the Director of “Steel Magnolias” and handled cast and script beautifully. The Ensemble Theatre will be performing somewhere again, in spaces suggested by the scripts that are chosen and vice versa. Lia and Ben Holden recently founded The Ensemble Theatre, and while you may have missed the first production there will be more to come. It is amazing to find so many fine actors here in Oklahoma, however something in the air must bring out the best in every actor and potential actor. The movie “Steel Magnolias” would be the same hit with this cast as they were with the movie cast.

One thing the movie has that the play does not is men. This cast brings the friendly shade of Tom Skerritt who played Drum Eatenton in the movie to life, Also, look closely and the smart-alecky Sam Shepard can almost be seen grabbing a beer out of the refrigerator. The owners of The Beauty Center, 1213 N Piedmont Road in Piedmont, Janet and Priscilla very graciously lent their shop to the Ensemble Theatre for this performance. Of course, the set is absolutely exactly right in almost all respects, however, even more than intimate, the space is a little crowded, and the actors were often curtailed by the narrow confines of the space.

While the run of “Steel Magnolias” has ended, look for more wonder from this group headed by the Oldham couple as co-artistic directors. For additional information call them at 405-928-3403, or try The Beauty Center at 405-373-1048 where Janet and Priscilla know everything! Find the Ensemble Theatre on Facebook, and like them (you can’t help but liking them) and they will keep you informed as well.

Elizabeth Hurd

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